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The state of comedy TV

21 March 2011

Broadcasters, it seems, are game for a laugh.

The BBC, long the biggest player in the comedy genre, is enjoying a strong run thanks to new hits such as Miranda, Rev, The Trip, Come Fly with Me and Him and Her.

Meanwhile, Channel 4, buoyed by the success of The Inbetweeners, is ploughing extra money into comedy as it seeks new hits in its post-Big Brother era. Its comedy commissioning budget has increased £5m to £27m a year.

But the biggest news in the small world of comedy TV is the arrival of Sky as a significant investor in the genre. From a standing start, it’s set to roll out eight new comedies a year on Sky1. It’s also looking to commission for Sky Living, Sky Atlantic and Sky Arts.

Elsewhere, UKTV’s Dave also has two scripted projects in funded development with indies, while Comedy Central is beginning to invest in original UK comedy production.

Channel 4’s head of comedy Shane Allen says it’s no surprise that broadcasters are increasingly prioritising comedy. “Things like The Inbetweeners can have very humble origins and become very channel defining,” he says. The Inbetweeners started out on E4 with 230k viewers for its first episode back in 2008. By its third series, it was attracting over 4m – a key factor in E4 winning so many plaudits in recent months.

At the same time as being a channel defining genre, the long term value of comedy over more disposable genres like factual entertainment and entertainment is increasingly being recognised by broadcasters. For many years, comedy was seen as something of a ‘market failure’ TV genre – expensive, risky and best left to deep pocketed public service broadcasters. But comedy is now seen as less of an expensive luxury. As Friends proved, broadcasters can practically build a channel by repeating a hit comedy series. A successful comedy has a very long shelf life. “A repeat of Father Ted will still do pretty well on More4 – and that is 15 years after the first TX,” says Allen. Comedies can also enjoy good DVD sales and – in the case of The Inbetweeners – potential film spin-offs.

Better market for comedy

“There’s a better marketplace for comedy ideas now,” confirms Kenton Allen, chief executive of Big Talk Productions, whose indie has just made Friday Night Dinner for C4, and is soon to go into production on the second series of Rev and Him and Her. “But winning commissions is one thing. Financing the shows is a whole different ball game.”

Allen says broadcaster budgets, particularly at the BBC, have gone down between 10-20%. Talent costs, however, are rising. Crews, says Allen, have to work longer to make shows work - Rev was made on six day weeks for six weeks. “It’s exhausting.”

DVD and distribution advances help with budgets, he acknowledges. “But they all need to be recouped - which puts the profit point further down the track if you are not careful.”

Fellow producer Henry Normal, md of The Trip producer Baby Cow, echoes Allen’s words. He agrees that the number of slots has increased, particularly with Sky investing heavily in the market. Advertisers like Fosters, he adds, are also directly funding online comedy series such as Baby Cow’s Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge.

“But there’s still a lot of people chasing a few opportunities. It’s a very difficult business – there’s lots of very good people producing.” “Trying to get six comedy scripts to a good standard can take half a year, then bringing them to air can take another half a year. It’s a year’s work. If it doesn’t get recommissioned, you start from scratch. It’s very difficult for smaller companies to set up and maintain.”

Baby Cow has been running for 11 years, and has 12 employees. “We very often spend seven days a week trying to make it work. If I had to set up now, I’m not sure I would. It is hard. But I was naïve when I set up – and I can’t do anything else, so it helps concentrate the mind,” says Normal.

Difficult choices at the BBC

Among comedy execs, it’s acknowledged that it’s been a good year for comedy, with the BBC in particular doing well.

BBC head of comedy Cheryl Taylor puts this down to a wealth of talent in the business, both in front of and behind the camera, saying that all parts of the industry “seem to be firing on all cylinders.”

“The last 12 months have essentially constituted a vintage year - we’ve had absolutely fantastic talent like Miranda coming through.” Taylor adds: “I feel certain that the reason that comedy is on a wave at the moment is that there are some really funny shows out there. That is the bottom line.”

This success, however, means that hard choices lie ahead. Because of BBC budget cuts and a need to make room for new ideas, Taylor is unable to recommission several shows which debuted strongly. The problem is acute on BBC2, home to Miranda, The Trip, Rev, Whites, Grandma’s House, Psychoville, Harry and Paul and Roger and Val Have Just Got In. “There’s some tough choices, and we are still working it out. But I want to bring back as many deserving shows as we can possibly afford,” says Taylor.

Across all four BBC channels, Taylor stresses the need to “find ambitious, fresh ideas to reach a broad audience.” While acknowledging that BBC2 and BBC4 are the homes of more boutique authored pieces, she says that overall “there is a great need for comedy that has entertainment values at its heart, so unearthing confident, bold comedy personas is a priority for me.”

Kenton Allen picks up on this theme: “As we go into more austere times, things that are inherently laugh out loud funny are an easier watch. I think there is a clue in Miranda, which is joyous, funny and likeable.” Multicamera sitcoms like Miranda fell out of fashion for a long time, making way for nuanced half hour comedies. “Where are our big laugh out loud Father Teds, Ab Fabs - those sort of shows,” says Allen. “Miranda is one of them, The IT Crowd is another. But there is room for more.”

C4 broadens its appeal

One senses that Channel 4 is starting to explore this territory too. Under new programming boss Jay Hunt, the channel is looking at broadening the appeal of its comedy, embracing a more modern, mainstream entertainment agenda.

With extra money in his budget, the emphasis is very much on 9pm, says head of comedy Shane Allen. He met with Hunt soon after she joined the channel. “She said you do brilliant reputational stuff. But it is expensive and should play more at the heart of the schedule.” Distinctive material for 9pm is a hard place to launch new talent, acknowledges Allen. So it’s likely the slot will be for established talent and writers, with E4 the home of more experimental comedies targeting a younger audience.

For C4, says Allen, we want “things with more jokes – broader pieces.” He’s looking out for nine or ten sitcoms on the main channel, and four on E4.

Sky powers into the market

Astonishingly, this is about the same amount of comedy that Sky hopes to commission across its four channels.

Sky, says producer Henry Normal, “will be the biggest single influence over the next couple of years – they seem to be setting their stall out to do comedy in a way that they have never done before.”

Channel boss Stuart Murphy really signalled Sky was getting serious about comedy when he poached BBC head of comedy Lucy Lumsden. She was originally tasked to commission for Sky1 alone. Now she is working across four channels, Sky1, Sky Living, Sky Atlantic and Sky Arts.

It’s a move that Lumsden describes as “a mini-cultural revolution.” Eight series will run on Sky1. Two comedy drama series have already been announced, Mount Pleasant and Stella and the broadcaster recently played out ensemble piece Christmas Crackers. In the coming weeks, Sky will announce four or five new titles for Sky1.

Lumsden says Sky1 has targeted blue-collar family audiences with its new shows. She points to Stella, a family saga set in the Welsh valleys written by and starring Ruth Jones. Lumsden describes it as a “blue collar series reflecting modern Britain...and the lives of our customers.”

ITV through to Dave

ITV has never been regarded as a major player in comedy. It’s enjoyed success with Benidorm, now in its fourth series, and Harry Hill’s TV Burp is hugely admired in the industry. But recently, it’s got behind Jason Manford’s Comedy Rocks variety show.

UKTV’s Dave is also upping its activity. The channel famously brought back Red Dwarf for three episodes in 2009, and buoyed by that success is developing two scripted and one animated project. Head of commissioning Jane Rogerson says, “UKTV comedies have to feel as if they can stand out in the market”, adding that “they need to contain well known faces that will bring an audience to the screen.” Rogerson also stresses the need for "innovative funding models that bring partners together” to help fund UKTV shows.

After all, Rogerson says, “I don’t underestimate that comedy is one of the most difficult genres to get right. Its price per pound and your guarantees on return make comedy one of the most high risk in the market.”


Lucy Lumsden, Sky head of comedy
How much are you now commissioning? We are going to be having original British comedy on Sky 1, Sky Living, Sky Atlantic and Sky Arts. We're doing about eight series with Sky1 a year, up from none when I took over.
What are you looking for on Sky1? Sky1 is very good at reflecting Californian blue sky, sun drenched lives - but what about our own and the lives of our customers. So we’ve absolutely gone hell for leather for that. The other big theme is that we’re going for the family audience.
And the other channels? We’re looking for about 2-3 titles on Sky Living, female led shows for 20-40 somethings. Sky Atlantic has This is Jinsy, and can bring on newer voices. Sky Arts is known names doing things that might surprise you.

Cheryl Taylor BBC Controller, comedy commissioning
What are you looking for? Funny scripts, first and foremost, across all channels. Big bold laugh out loud shows with entertainment values at their heart. We are keen to find ambitious, fresh ideas to reach a broad audience. There is a great need for comedy that has entertainment values at its heart, so unearthing confident, bold comedy personas is a priority for me.
What are you not looking for? You’d be amazed how many scripts we receive that either are 50 mins in length and are supposed to be half an hour, or have absolutely no jokes in them at all.

Shane Allen Channel 4 Head of comedy

What are you looking for? As well as doing reputational pioneering stuff on E4, on C4 we are looking for things that could play at 9pm and be a bit broader. We are trying to think of areas that people can have an immediate buy into, like Friday Night Dinner, C4’s first family sitcom, or returning things that people recognise like The IT Crowd. We want things with more jokes, and broader pieces.
What are you not looking for? Sketch shows are very difficult to punch through for us. We’re not really after niche, darker, quieter comedies. Or comedies where people play a version of themselves.

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